Saturday, January 22, 2011

Helping policy makers to view climate change as a system

In early August, I attended the Annual meeting of the System Dynamics (computer modeling) Society, held in Seoul, South Korea. My last visit to Seoul was many years ago when I attended the International Conference on the Unity of the Sciences, organized by the Rev. Son Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Church. I was amazed at how city had grown and how much more relaxed and self-confident the Koreans I encountered in my walking about appeared to be. Among my conference roles was serving as Rapporteur for the concluding plenary session, focusing on environmental issues. I thought the two papers given and the issues raised, summarized in my notes, were of sufficient interest to merit a more general sharing. I do acknowledge this is a bit long for a blog posting.


John Sterman, Andrew Jones, Thomas Fiddaman, Elizabeth Sawin, Travis Frank, The Road From Copenhagen: Supporting International Climate Negotiations with the C-ROADS SIMULATION.

When John Sterman, spoke at the 27th International Conference in Albuquerque, the Climate Interactive Group, which he leads, was preparing for the December 2009 Copenhagen Conference. The audience mostly comprised true believers, who accepted climate change as a manifestation of global overshoot and collapse. They respected – perhaps even revered – John’s work as the best System Dynamics modeling has to offer. Most were aware of the C-Roads Model. Some had used its findings as a basis for similar presentations, workshops or university courses. Yet John’s passionate delivery brought to mind the prophet Jeremiah’s vivid description of probable scenarios leading to the conquest of Israel and the privations its people would face. In retrospect, I believe John may have been using the Albuquerque venue as a warm-up for presentations he would be giving to less congenial audiences in the upcoming months.

John’s post Copenhagen retrospective delivered in Seoul highlighted many climate change projections that the Albuquerque audience had heard. (Many participants in the Seoul conference had not traveled to Albuquerque and were less familiar with C-Roads.) Temperatures were rising more rapidly than had been projected. The impacts that are already visible will become more severe. Coastal cities will be threatened, the ecosystems that support present agricultural production systems will be altered, the trend of more frequent extreme weather events will proliferate. “Runaway changes” with unpredictable, irreversible effects are becoming more and more probable. “We are playing Russian Roulette with a revolver in which nineteen out of 20 chambers are loaded,” John concluded this part of his talk. “The risks will be borne by our children.”

But vitally though this message was, it should not be the most important take-away for Seoul participants. The take-away should be about how difficult it is enact any significant policy change, requiring transformation of deeply held attitudes, where the status quo is reinforced by entrenched institutions, limited grasp of system complexity, myopic time horizons and self serving powerful actors. In 2009, John drew an analogy between reversing climate change and effecting meaningful civil rights policy. In 2010, his message was that effecting policies to reverse climate change is, for a variety of reasons, the far more daunting task.

Since the early days of the Club of Rome and the IIASA Global Modeling conferences, an aging generation of System Dynamics Modelers has grappled with the challenges of changing public attitudes and influencing policy makers regarding global-scale challenges. The work of the C-Roads team demonstrates how much has been learned, by at least some members of our community. The work is grounded in high-quality scientific research. There is a serious commitment to dissemination and recognition that dissemination is fundamentally different enterprise than research, with its own imperatives, technologies and pitfalls. There is recognition that raising public consciousness and influencing policy makers, too, are different, though interdependent enterprises. The work is being carried forward by a talented, multifaceted team with adequate funding and a commitment to the long haul. There is much to be learned from their experience. We can help forward their important work with our approbation, our support and our prayers.

Andrew Ford, Greening the Economy with New Markets: Lessons from System Dynamics Simulation of Energy and Environmental Markets

That I have less to say about Andy Ford’s fine paper and presentation should not be interpreted as a reflection on its quality. In fact, the two plenary presentations and the issues they raise are interrelated. Andy is grappling with climate change proposals under consideration at the national level. His paper “focuses on the CLEAR Act introduced by US Senators Maria Cantwell (of Washington) and Susan Collins (of Maine). It calls for the imposition of a scientifically based cap on CO2 emissions. The cap would apply to the upstream companies that produce or import fossil fuels. The higher prices of fossil fuels would then work their way through the US energy system, sending improved signals to al business on the value of avoiding CO2 emissions.” Legislation such as CLEAR, backed up high quality modeling work such as Greening the Economy… describes, will necessarily play an important role in reversing the process of climate change, if it is to occur.

Greening the Economy…, presenting a model Andy describes as “preliminary” is none the less an exemplar of how public-policy oriented System Dynamics modeling should be executed and documented. It is the sort of paper I assign to my students with the injunction “if your final project paper looks like this, will have met my expectations.” The model, of mid-level size, is presented with a stock-flow Vensim diagram that is easily understood. It illustrates a strength of System Dynamics modeling, the ability to seamlessly combine physical and financial stock-flow dynamics within a single structure. It provides the capacity to explore scenarios that fall within the CLEAR legislation’s purview and those that extend beyond it. Model results show that the “cap and dividend’ mechanism proposed by CLEAR shows promise, but that market volatility is a possibility under some scenarios, raising concerns that may need to be addressed in regulatory regimes that are implemented under the legislation. Further work at the University of Washington is envisioned.

Juxtaposing this model alongside C-Roads raises the evocative question of how the team at WSU should set its priorities. The next milestone in their project seems clear: refinement of the model and publication of results in one or more peer reviewed journals. But what then? The experience of the Climate Interactive Group and others in our community point to the challenges a commitment to dissemination poses, and the resources it requires. In academic communities, there is little agreement that the sort of dissemination C-Roads represents is an appropriate activity for university faculty members, especially those seeking tenure. Once this fine model has moved beyond the preliminary stage and results have been published, Andy’s team will face the challenge described so beautifully by Poet Robert Frost in “The Road not Taken.”

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